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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 30-32 (Gould) (1956)
The release of Glenn Gould’s 1955
recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV
988, (Naxos 8.111247) spread his name
around the world as this was Bach playing
of a style that was wholly new. As a follow
up, the 23 year-old Gould chose the last
three sonatas by Beethoven which, at that
time, were usually reserved for more
experienced pianists.With their sometimes
unusually fast tempos (executed with
remarkable clarity and precision) and
omission of repeats, Gould’s performances
originally attracted widespread criticism for
daring to be different. With hindsight,
however, they can be seen as perfectly valid
interpretations that combine sensitivity and
intelligence without a trace of
By William Bender
American Record Guide
By Jonathan Woolf
I don’t know why I received a jolt when I saw that Gould’s Beethoven sonatas had been Naxosed. Perhaps it was the early death or the feeling that he is somehow still very much our contemporary. At any event these recordings were made in June 1956 so they are perfectly valid entrants in the Naxos Historical line.
So should you have missed a Sony incarnation this is an inexpensive way to get hold of his frequently bizarre Beethoven performances. Op.109 opens relatively stably though sketchy as to detail. Variation three of the finale is absurdly fast and the succeeding variations fluctuate wildly. The effect physically and perhaps psychologically—always a dangerous area to psychoanalyse Gouldian performance—is to destabilise accepted structural and emotive norms. Op.110’s opening movement lacks the kind of madcap caprice that so disfigured the earlier work though it is rather perfunctory. The scherzo lacks expressive depth—or deigns to find such in the music—whilst the finale features some stratospheric chording before the final fugal episode.
Op.111 is an extreme example of Gouldian perversity. If you didn’t know the performance especially well you might think that it had been speeded up. This is particularly true of the first movement which becomes, in Gould’s hands, a Keystone Kops episode. It is quite clearly an anti-reading, one dedicated to subverting Beethovenian hierarchies. Gould wrote specifically about the ’nonsense’ he felt had accrued to the last sonatas and quartets, railing at such as Huxley and Mann, whom amongst then contemporary novelists he singled out for especial criticism. Presumably he found their edifice building, the philosophical superstructures they propounded and the Sophoclean heights they found in late Beethoven, anathema to his purely pianistic view of the matter. The result was a clash of cultures the like of which music seldom sees—or hears. The emigré Europeans with their highfalutin’ fantasies were being scythed down by the North American pragmatist. The results though were, and are, bizarre. The irony is that it’s still Mann and Huxley’s Beethoven that largely prevails. Gould’s is bleached bones.
By all means acquaint yourself with this well transferred Naxos issue—but be prepared, if you’ve not heard the performances, for an act of didactic defiance rather than a musical compromise.
By Rob Cowan
Glenn Gould’s provocative recording of the last three Beethoven sonatas offers performances than can sing (the opening of Op 109), contemplate (Op 110’s Adagio) or turn muscular argument into high-octane flimflam (Op 111’s Allegro con brio). Moments of rapt concentration and genuine repose alternate with outlandish gestures in a uniquely Gouldian way and if you haven’t as yet managed to acquire one or other of Sony’s own CD reissues of the same recording, Naxos’s from Mark Obert-Thorn will leave you no cause for regret.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827):
Sonata No. 30, Op. 109 • Sonata No. 31, Op. 110 • Sonata No. 32, Op. 111
Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould first studied piano with his mother who was a voice teacher. At ten he went to the Toronto Conservatory of Music where he studied piano with Albert Guerrero, organ with Frederick C. Silvester and theory with Leo Smith. Concurrently, Gould studied at Malvern Collegiate Institute. At fifteen he gave his recital début in Toronto and within a few years was regularly appearing on Canadian radio and television. Tours of Western Canada followed, and by 1955 Gould, already one of Canada’s outstanding musicians, made his American début in Washington D.C. The recital, consisting of Bach, late Beethoven, Webern and Berg, was repeated in New York whereupon Gould was immediately signed to CBS records. The release of his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, (8.111247) spread his name around the world as this was Bach playing of a style that was wholly new.
Gould made his New York orchestral début with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19, and later that year made his début in Berlin with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1955 Gould performed regularly throughout North America, and between 1957 and 1959 played in the USSR, Israel and Western Europe. Gould was in demand everywhere and played with the greatest orchestras and conductors until 1964 when he retired from the concert stage. He was only 32, but did not like the experience of concert giving, finding it traumatic and unpleasant. Increasingly eccentric and always fastidious and particular about his health, he found the option of editing a recording to his satisfaction far preferable to performing.
Gould recorded for Columbia/CBS from 1955 until his death, and when asked by Columbia what he would like to record as a follow up to his highly successful Goldberg Variations he replied that it should be the last three sonatas by Beethoven. Gould was 23 at the time and the repertoire he had selected was usually reserved for mature pianists with a lifetime of experience of music and the world behind them. It is not, however, such an eccentric choice as it appears, because Gould was already performing the late Beethoven sonatas in his recitals and played some at his earliest appearances in America. Also, these works contain a good deal of fugal writing, something Gould was particularly fond of. The three sonatas were recorded in seven sessions between 20th and 29th June 1956 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios in New York City.
With the opening movement of the Sonata in E major, Op. 109, where the time signature is two in a bar with the work beginning on the second beat, Gould is one of the few pianists who gives a true sense of this upbeat. Where Beethoven interrupts the sempre legato flow of the opening idea after only eight bars, Gould gives a strong feeling of improvisation in the following adagio espressivo arpeggio passages. He allows the movement to unfold and builds to a climax which is never forced or harsh, as it so often can be, and retains a feeling of the vivace marking throughout. Gould takes the second movement at a true Prestissimo retaining his hallmark clarity, and delivers the theme of the third movement with expression but not sentimentality. It should be remembered that the movement is marked Andante – usually translated as ‘at a walking pace’ in musical dictionaries – so one could argue that Gould has chosen the perfect tempo (depending on how fast one walks). If eyebrows have not been raised yet by this interpretation, they surely will be by the third variation which, marked allegro vivace, is played presto with the following variation’s tempo in proportion although much faster than one is used to hearing it. As one critic wrote at the time, ‘Hurried or not, spirited or poignant, the phrasing is shaped by honourable instinct, and proves the man behind the pianist.’ In the fifth variation, a fugue, Gould is in his element and plays it risoluto. One of the many criticisms fired at this recording when it was first released is that Gould ignored the repeats in the third movement. Indeed, many critics were enraged that one so young could take such liberties with this music. They were probably enraged even more by the sleeve notes to the original LP, written by Gould himself, where he wrote, ‘The wealth of critical writing on the last sonatas and quartets reveals a greater preponderance of nonsense, not to mention contradiction, than any comparable literature.’ Gould continues by castigating particular writers on the subject by concluding that ‘the giddy heights to which these absurdities can wing have been realised by several contemporary novelists, notable offenders being Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley.’ The confidence with which Gould writes and interprets this music is evident and it was probably a combination of this and Columbia’s marketing of Gould that raised the critics hackles even before they heard this Beethoven disc. As one wrote on Gould joining the ranks of pianists playing late Beethoven on record, ‘talent aside, confidence is needed to enter these lists, a quality abundantly allocated to Mr Gould and fortified by a smoking ballyhoo of which Columbia should be ashamed. The pianist, poor devil, has to display his wares to critics outraged by the preliminary barrage of laudation.’ The same critic was given ‘an impression of calculated bumptiousness instigated by the playing and confirmed by the pianist’s own jacket notes, intelligent and ill-mannered.’
Gould infuses the first movement of Op. 110 with the same positive qualities as he does of Op. 109; again expressive without being sentimental. The following Allegro molto is surprisingly staid but Gould excels in the arioso dolente and fugues of the final movement with a combination of sensitivity and intelligence. The arioso has rarely been played with such a balance of pathos and control.
It is perhaps in the Allegro con brio ed appassionato of Op. 111 that Gould faces his strongest and rather more valid criticism. The excessively fast tempo he chooses does seem to be taken for no other reason than because he is able. It is too frenetic to be appassionato and the short ritenuto passages are ignored. Rather than being exhilarated, one is left feeling exhausted.
With hindsight, and after all the contemporary dust had settled, these recordings can be seen as revealing rather than eccentric, a perfectly valid interpretation and not one to be dismissed as the immature utterings of a would-be iconoclast. After all, it is better to be provoked than to be bored. At the time of its release a rather more fair-minded critic wrote of the recording that ‘it must too be admitted that these sonatas as played here are never dull. Diffident performances would be worse than speckles of effrontery at which we wince; for, after all, a wince is a stimulus.’
© 2008 Jonathan Summers
GREAT PIANISTS • GLENN GOULD
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109
Recorded 28 – 29 June, 1956
Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110
Recorded 26 – 27 June, 1956
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 22:48
Recorded 20 – 21 and 25 June, 1956
All tracks recorded in the Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York City and first published on Columbia ML-5130
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Special thanks to Matthew Harding for providing source material
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